Hyper Light Drifter is the epitome of polish.
A Kickstarted game that exploded beyond its original goals, thanks to a visually stunning prototype and the promise of a modernized take on challenging 8 and 16-bit classics, it took nearly three years to deliver. Now that it’s in our hands, though, it’s clear that every second of that time was worth the wait.
You play as the Drifter, an aptly-named warrior who appears suddenly and wanders through a ruined world, never staying in one place for too long. As you explore the terrain, you’ll face monsters and platforming challenges, using your sword, gun, and dashing abilities to fight and traverse. No proper video game these days would go without upgrades and progression, and there are plenty of new skills to learn and tools to acquire as you play. You’ll get access to new guns, additional sword and dash techniques, healing enhancements, and even grenades, if you so choose.
While there’s plenty of nimble platforming and exploration to be done in Hyper Light Drifter, the core of the game really boils down to its combat. As you move throughout forests, mountains, and underground caverns, you’ll encounter enemies of all shapes and sizes in various combinations and densities. There are often multiple ways to approach a situation, and how you choose to apply your various weapons and skills is up to you.
You might decide to start from afar, firing a laser beam and tossing a grenade to take out the most dangerous foes, then dash in with your sword to mop up the remaining horde. You could opt to leap right in, shotgun blasts and heavy attacks decimating monsters. Or you could play a safe defensive game of dashing through foes and deflecting their attacks back at them, only striking when the coast is clear.
The game’s various combat tools offer you different overall approaches, but you’re never allowed to rely heavily on one weapon or skill for too long. Guns have limited ammo and only recharge by slashing enemies with your sword. Dashes and sword strikes have specific timing and can’t be spammed. Special techniques like a charged attack are limited by a stamina meter that rebuilds over time. Even grenades operate on a cool-down.
This system cleverly encourages you to improve your skill with each weapon individually and use them together in combos, but it never feels forced or frustrating. In fact, this training is a very good thing, because Hyper Light Drifter is not an easy game, and not properly learning to apply your skills in combat will be a death sentence.
There’s a finesse to the combat in Hyper Light Drifter that is matched by few other games of its type. Once you get into a few hairy scenarios, you’ll quickly realize that button mashing and blind luck will get you nowhere in this game. But once you figure out how all the pieces fit together, you’ll approach seemingly impossible situations with zen-like precision.
The key to a successful battle is assessing the situation and applying deliberate actions in a specific order to defeat every enemy and proceed towards your larger goal. It’s not unlike the famous “combat puzzle” nature of the Halo series, and that’s not where the comparison to other games ends.
Hyper Light Drifter borrows elements from many different titles and franchises, but not all of them are readily apparent. The overhead view, sword combat, and world map are probably the first you’ll notice, and they immediately inspire thoughts of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. (Not a bad template to start with.) The upgrade system borrows from Metroid. The character designs are reminiscent of Journey and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Other visual elements are ripped right out of FEZ. And as you play, pieces of bullet hell shooters even start to emerge. But while Hyper Light Drifter pays tribute to all of its predecessors as inspiration, it never feels like a rip-off of those games. It skillfully dissects the best parts of them and stitches them together into something all its own that works as a distinct entity, not a rehash.
The specifics of Hyper Light Drifter’s world and story are left open to interpretation, but the detail isn’t really important. There’s enough information delivered to understand the basics: a Bad Thing happened, a Great Evil has invaded, and you’re the Chosen One who can stop it. It’s a story told countless times throughout all forms of media, and if it were delivered in a completely transparent and straightforward method, it would seem trite. But, like all other aspects of the game, the story of this world works because it’s told with slick style and thick atmosphere rather than overwrought words.
The game’s visual style isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever experienced before. Don’t write it off as just another indie game with pixel graphics. It’s a deft mashup of painterly shapes and neon colors, with a dash of Saturday morning cartoon for good measure. Each of the game’s four main areas has its own unique look and feel, and very few assets are re-used across these geographic regions. Enemy designs have a wide variety and provide appropriate visual cues that aid in combat, and character animations are crisp and satisfying. Throughout the world, friendly creatures and fallen warriors deliver bits of story through emotion-laden paintings. There isn’t a single pixel out of place, and most importantly, the pleasing visuals never get in the way of gameplay.
The style is only further enhanced by the fantastic music of Disasterpeace. Hyper Light Drifter’s soundtrack is reminiscent of the artist’s work on both FEZ and the 2015 horror film It Follows. It’s a perfect pairing to the beautiful pixel art of this mysterious ruined world, and every musical cue is on point, from the ethereal tones of the overworld to the pounding beats of the boss battles.
All of this style would mean nothing if it wasn’t tied to the fantastic gameplay mentioned above. And the two sides of that coin work perfectly in tandem to build a holistic experience that keeps on giving. After making my way through the main quest, all I wanted to do was hop back in and keep playing. Thankfully, the nuance of Hyper Light Drifter means there are unsolved mysteries in the game that are likely to keep players busy for weeks or even months to come.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided to us.
Every element of Hyper Light Drifter blends together to form a near perfect action-adventure game that's worthy of standing with the impeccable titles it borrows from.